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John Constable, 1776–1837

Landscape at East Bergholt

ca. 1805
Materials & Techniques:
Watercolor over graphite on medium, moderately textured, cream laid paper
Sheet: 7 x 8 1/2 inches (17.8 x 21.6 cm)

Inscribed in artist's hand in graphite, verso, upper left: "East Bergholt"; inscribed in pen and black ink, verso, upper left: "East Bergholt"; in later hand in graphite, verso, upper center: "J.C."; bottom right: "13"

Watermark: 1801

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
landscape | sheep | trees
Associated Places:
East Bergholt | England | Europe | Suffolk | United Kingdom
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IIIF Manifest:

John Constable lacked the natural facility of Turner and Girtin and struggled to achieve his goal of being a major painter. In 1802, frustrated with his progress at the Royal Academy Schools, he told a friend that “I shall shortly return [home] to Bergholt where I shall make some laborious studies of nature—and I shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected representation of the scenes that may employ me.” Initially he made his studies in oils, but around 1805 he began to dabble in watercolor. This example, a product of that period of study, was almost certainly painted outdoors directly from nature. Already we find Constable’s trademark concern to capture specific atmospheric conditions.

Gallery label for Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17)
Today Constable's name stands alongside Turner's (cat. nos. 43-49) as one of the leading landscape painters of his generation, yet this was not the case in his own lifetime, and the two painters had little in common besides an attachment o landscape. Turner was the son of a Covent Garden barber; Constable, the son of a prosperous mill owner in Suffolks East Bergholt. Turner was admired by metropolitan audiences as a youthful prodigy while still in his twenties; Constable had to wait until he was in his early forties before he received real recognition. Turner painted landscapes from across Europe, reflecting his passion for travel; Constable never traveled outside Britain and, even then, his subjects were geographically limited. Behind all these difterences there lurked a more fundamental divergence between the two painters: Turner was something of a political radical, Constable a natural conservative.

Turner had grown up in Covent Garden surrounded by artists and their exhibitions; his father had advertised his son's talents by pinning drawings to the wall of his barbershop. Constable's family had no such pride in his artistic interests. His mother, however, did introduce Constable to Sir George Beaumont in 1795, when he was in the neighboring village of Dedham visiting his mother. Presumably, she hoped her son's interest in art would remain a strictly amateur one like Beaumont's. In 1797 she wrote to Constable's friend and supporter, the draftsman and picturesque theorist John Thomas Smith, stating politely but firmly her wish that "John will attend to business, by which he will please his father and ensure his own respectability and com-fort." When Constable finally persuaded his father to support his chosen career the following year, he wrote a letter of introduction to Joseph Farington, the eminence grise of the Royal Academy. Farington noted approvingly that Constable "[k]nows Sir G. B[eaumont]," but added that although he was "devoted to art." his background meant it was "not necessary to profess it."

Beaumont and Farington secured Constable a place in the Academy Schools in 1800, but his period there was unhappy, and he hovered uncomfortably between amateur and professional status. His fellow students repelled him, and he preferred to spend time with the paintings in Beaumont's collection, whether by Old Masters such as Claude or modern British painters such as Richard Wilson. Contemporary art left him cold and filled him with the conviction that his own vision was inherently superior. His conservative outlook shone through when he wrote to his Suffolk friend John Dunthorne in 1802," There is little or nothing in the exhibitions worth looking up to - there is room enough for a natural painture. The great vice of the present day is bravura. ... Fashion always had, & always will have its day - but Truth (in all things) only will last and can have just claims on posterity." Tired of London, he explained, "I shall shortly return to Bergholt where I shall make some laborious studies of nature - and I shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected representation of the scenes that may employ me."

Landscape at East Bergholt is the product of that laborious period of study from nature he vowed to undertake back in the Stour Valley. The first works Constable made after leaving London had been small oil studies, probably made on Farington's advice. Farington's master, Wilson, had made oil sketches and studies when in Rome in the 17505 as had Jonathan Skelton (cat. no. 9). But around 1805, Constable seems to have abandoned oil in favor of making watercolor sudies. This shift to watercolor may have been through Beaumont's influence. Although Beaumont had a pronounced dislike for watercolors influence on the younger generation, he appreciated its merits in a limited capacity. The experiment was short-lived. The following year, Constable dropped watercolor to take up oil studies again, though now using his knowledge of watercolor to develop his oil technique. Landscape at East Bergholt almost certainly belongs to the small group of watercolors he produced in 1805, although Constable's watercolors are notoriously hard to date. This example was once believed to represent a view on Hampstead Heath, which would date it after 1819, but on being remounted the inscription "East Bergholt," in Constable's own hand, was discovered, suggesting a much earlier date.

These early watercolors were invariably painted outdoors, directly from nature in the manner of Thomas Girtin (cat. nos. 39-42). Here, the focus is on the landscape's general effects - the play of light and shadow, the shifts in color between foreground and distant objects - rather than on its particular char-acteristics. Before Constable left London, Farington had urged him to attend to general rather than particular nature, and, besides, we can safely assume that Constable was familiar enough with the location not to need detailed description; it was after all on the doorstep of the place he was born and raised. This study was perhaps intended as an experiment in ordering landscape objects into a composition, for the impact of Beaumont's Claudes is obvious in the way the foreground tree frames an expansive view opening to the left. But while Constable approached the landscape in general terms, he attempted to capture specific atmospheric conditions. Instead of Claude's golden light, Constable shows the effects of a blustery day and the light that falls from a cloud filled sky full of moisture. His use of watercolor in an extremely wet state, over light strokes of graphite, creates broad masses of color and mimics the sense of wetness in the sky. Constable's laid paper is particularly suited to applying watercolor in wet washes and recalls the work of John Robert Cozens (cat. nos. 17-20) and Thomas Girtin (cat. nos. 39-42); both used an uneven support to reflect additional light from a watercolor's surface, and both were well represented in Beaumont's own collection of watercolors. This influence aside, it was Constable's developing mastery of atmospheric effects that was his distinctive contribution to landscape, the "natural painture" he thought no one else capable or willing to produce at the time. While other watercolorists like John "Warwick" Smith (cat. nos. 15-16) or Joshua Cristall (cat. no. 35) were also interested in capturing atmosphere in their work, Constable differed in trying to show not just the look of the weather, but also how it felt to be part of it. It was this quality in Constable's art that made Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) joke, "I like de landscapes of Constable ... but he makes me call for my great coat and umbrella."

Hargraves, Matthew, and Scott Wilcox. Great British watercolors: from the Paul Mellon Collection. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 2007, pp. 116-119, no. 50, ND1928 .Y35 2007 (LC)+ Oversize (YCBA)

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (The State Hermitage Museum, 2007-10-23 - 2008-01-13) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2007-07-11 - 2007-09-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Masters of British Painting: John Constable (Musée du Louvre, 2002-10-08 - 2003-01-13) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Oil on Water - Oil Sketches by British Watercolorists (Yale Center for British Art, 1986-08-26 - 1986-11-09) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

English Landscape (Paul Mellon Collection) 1630-1850 (Yale Center for British Art, 1977-04-19 - 1977-07-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Malcolm Cormack, Oil on water, oil sketches by British watercolorists , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1986, pp. 18-19, fig. 5, ND467 C67 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Graham Reynolds, The early paintings and drawings of John Constable, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven, 1996, p. 64 (v.1), no. 5.30, pl. 270 [v.2], NJ18 C74 R484 1996 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

Christopher White, English landscape, 1630-1850, drawings, prints & books from the Paul Mellon Collection , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1977, p. 86, no. 154, pl. XXVII, NC228 W45 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Yale Center for British Art, Great British watercolors : from the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, pp. 116-119, no. 50, ND1928 .Y35 2007 (LC)+ Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

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